Time to think of the 10,000-year water system

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Faced with a changing climate, and the need for resilience, water utilities should reframe their thinking around a 10,000-year view. By Casey Brown.


Have you heard about the 10,000 year clock? In a mountain in West Texas, engineers and visionaries are building a mechanical clock that will tell time reliably for 10,000 years. The hands of steel and titanium clock will move only once a day, ring once a year, and chime once a millennium, its chimes also playing melodies at random times that never repeat throughout its 10,000 year life. Why spend $42,000,000 to build a clock they may never hear ring? They build so people will think about the long term. I invite you to join them.

So, how do we plan a water service that will last for 10,000 years? This is our koan, or thought experiment, to enlighten our thinking on what it means to be resilient to the uncertainty of the future, ensuring future generations benefit from well managed water. By focusing on the very long term, we unleash ourselves from the stresses of the moment and recognise such challenges, and even ourselves, as transient. It forces us to consider the essence of a water supply service, and encourages us to ponder Jonas Salk’s question: “Are we being good ancestors?” (www.longnow.org).

Perhaps we will realise that a water supply system is a temporary entity. The system that provides water to customers in the year 12,020 will be very different from today’s system, just as the current system differs from that of the past. The only constant is the objective of achieving the essential function – the delivery of water of acceptable quality and adequate quantity to meet our needs. With the long view, we see that doing so for 10,000 years entails successfully anticipating and managing the transitions between system configurations able to provide this service, come what may.

The need for resilience

In this sense, achieving millennial-scale longevity requires resilience. Resilience of a system is the ability to provide its essential function or service in the face of short-term shocks and long- term change. It can be useful to consider resilience in terms of three capabilities – persistence, adaptability and transformability – each of which corresponds to progressive stages of managing change as it manifests (see box).

The stages correspond to the degree of impact a particular shock or trend has on a system. For water supply systems, persistence is the most familiar capability. We typically design and manage our water systems to withstand and survive stresses in order to provide adequate service without changing in any way. This is the status quo, and the goal is to remain in this desired state, to maintain equilibrium (note that for some systems, achieving the satisfactory delivery of services remains an aspiration).

Now, taking the 10,000 year view, we see that persistence will not be sufficient in the long run, as conditions are very likely to change beyond those under which a system is able to continue to perform satisfactorily. In fact, for many systems that might be the case right now. Whether it is increased competition for water, rapid urbanisation and population growth in underserved areas, rising financial obligations, or changes in climate, there are systems now that likely need to abandon their familiar but vestigial configurations and transition to a design that responds to changing reality.

The first stage of such a transition is Adaptation. Here, the system requires a reconfiguration of some kind to achieve a satisfactory state of performance. Planning exercises that water utilities commonly conduct to identify and sequence future investments represent a form of adaptation.

Such planning is most effective when it anticipates the need to adapt. Doing so requires consistent monitoring and interpretation of system status data, including natural infrastructure components such as the watershed, the climate, and of the social licence to provide this service, such as the state of trust and communication with constituencies. However, few water managers will prove nimble enough to avoid defeat by only reacting to change. Predictions, even uncertain ones, can be elevating when used appropriately, in particular, using a decision analysis framework that considers the impact of the full range of possible futures. However, predictions used inappropriately, such as making bets on single “best guesses”, can be counterproductive.

At some point, the costs of additions or reconfigurations of a water system will exceed thresholds for what can be afforded. At some point over a 10,000 year period, there may be no good options for adjusting the current system to meet the challenges of change. Instead, a rethinking of the system itself and potentially a change of its central assumptions and corresponding components is required. This is the idea of Transformation. Consider how the delivery of water is likely to transform in the millennia ahead. Will water still be delivered in bulk via underground pipes? Must purified drinking water continue to be used to transport human waste through sewer systems? Should we source our water from the sky and weather, or can we decouple our need for water from the vagaries of the Earth’s climate system? While all water management systems will confront such questions in the long run, the failing performance of many water management systems suggests the need for Transformation right now.

Implementation for the long haul

A design approach for implementing the concepts of Persistence, Adaptation and Transformation is described in Resilience by Design: A deep uncertainty approach for water systems in a changing world (Brown et al., 2020). It provides a guide for achieving what some might think is unachievable – a 10,000-year water system. On the contrary, I think planning for 10,000 years is exactly how we need to think right now. It’s a statement of optimism and pledge that we are committed to our children and the generations to come. It will prompt needed multi-generational questions and discussions that transcend the economics of discounting the future.

Let’s be clear: I’m in it for the long haul. Despite prevailing sentiments, I’m betting on the future. Remember the future? It’s the place where things get better and better thanks to the good decisions we make now. Sadly, the future has lost its allure. Yes, we face an incredible array of daunting challenges. Every foretold disaster seems to have arrived. But must we wallow in the instantaneous now? Or can we escape the addiction to the short term, a world dominated by market forces that steal and replace our ability to dream of the future. We need to dream of a better future if we’re to find the strength to make the changes we need now.

Luckily, the future remains uncertain. And regardless of the movie that got the future right, whether it’s Mad Max, Blade Runner or the Jetsons, I have the same goal: to make sure there’s water of sufficient quantity and quality available for civilisation. There are a number of threats out there, but the least we can do is ensure poor water planning is not one of them.


Resilience by design – the key features

The three capabilities of resilience (Boltz et al., 2020) that are incorporated in Resilience by Design (Brown et al., 2020):


The ability to maintain coherent function in response to disruption and changing conditions without altering the identity of the system. This corresponds to being robust to changing trends while also having the ability to recover from acute shocks. For example, managing an extreme climate event such as extended drought is persistence.


The ability to maintain coherent function by modifying the identity of the system to accommodate change. This ability is gained through monitoring and detection of changing external conditions and using this information to change operations and configuration when needed. For example, anticipating and altering the operating rules for a water supply system due to changing flood risk or seasonal flow patterns is adaptability.


The ability to change identity and to establish a new, stable function when pushed beyond tipping points that preclude maintaining its prior state. When adaptation is insufficient to achieve satisfactory performance, the system must fundamentally change. A key aspect of transformation is managing change to achieve a new state of the system that is desirable and not simply degraded. For example, the replacement of raw water sources by treated wastewater, such as achieved by Singapore PUB, is an example of transformation.


More information

F Boltz et al. 2019. Water is a master variable: solving for resilience in the modern era. Water Security, 8, p100048.

C Brown et al. 2020. Resilience by design: a deep uncertainty approach for water systems in a changing world. Water Security, 9, p100051.


The author

Dr Casey Brown is Professor of Water Resources Engineering at the University of Massachusetts, USA.